Most romantic comedies traffic in the trouble of deception. Boy meets girl. Boy lies to girl. Girl discovers lie. Boy redeems himself. Girl forgives boy. They live happily ever after. The playful Generation Y story (500) Days of Summer goes against the grain by wisely substituting delusion for deception. Boy meets girl. Boy thinks he understands girl. Boy oh boy.
(500) Days of Summer, a technical romantic comedy eager to deflate the genre’s conventions, takes the male point of view. That’s not to say that Zooey Deschanel doesn’t get a good role, which she does. But we follow the psychological roller coaster of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of The Lookout). When the “perfectly adequate” greeting card writer strikes up an office romance with Deschanel’s Summer, we’ve been warned. Not only have we seen Tom distraught from their eventual breakup, but the film’s narrator has told us, “You should know up front: this is not a love story.”
The film’s brilliant gimmick is to flip through the 500 days of the relationship as if they were in a Rolodex. With the added resonance of this narrative technique and an overflowing reservoir of very funny observational humor, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber add insight and hilarity to the old “boy meets girl” formula. A modern girl uneager for romantic complication, Summer professes not to believe in love or marriage. “I’m not really looking for anything serious,” she says. Tom tries to play it cool, but he’s neurotic to the bone, even seeking advice from his little sister (Chloe Moretz). Of course, Tom and Summer “hook up,” but are they friends with benefits or a couple?
Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are ideally cast, and both conspire with first-time feature director Mark Webb to make the characters lovably charming but also flawed. Crucially, Webb keeps the tone light without unduly mocking Tom’s deeply felt emotions. It’s funny, as they say, because it’s true; with a little distance, it’s not hard to recognize our own romantic delusions and empathize with Tom and Summer. The script demands that Summer's character remain mostly subtextual while Tom is a stage-five neurotic, but they're also everyday victims of each other's expectations and agendas. The neat trick of (500) Days is that they're literally "every day" victims.
Speaking of neurotics, this latter-day Annie Hall substitutes downtown Los Angeles for New York (Tom's unfulfilled desire to be an architect provides an excuse to ogle landmarks), and a montage of Euro art house parodies indirectly nods to the film's strong Woody Allen influence. At moments like the latter one, the picture is too cutesy for its own good, but Neustadter and Weber keep coming up with fresh ideas (like a split-screen comparison of expectations and reality), and they don’t forget to take stock of the all-important lessons of failure. Webb's visual flair (learned in the trenches of music video) doesn't hurt, nor do the ominous musical selections (the lovers bond over The Smiths, and Summer voices the Belle & Sebastian lyric “Color my life with the chaos of trouble...”).
Indeed, (500) Days of Summer wouldn’t be a deconstructed romantic comedy without a pop soundtrack. Though the music (running the gamut from Hall and Oates to Regina Spektor) functions as what it parodies, it’s clearly part and parcel of the film’s central irony. Often to our peril, we understand love through the filter of pop: poetry, music, and, perhaps most of all, movies.
[This article first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
The making-of featurette included with (500) Days of Summer helpfully includes the director, director of photography and costume designer discussing the film's palette and lighting choices, helping to prove the excellence of Fox's hi-def transfer on Blu-ray. The image has a slightly soft and delicate look (intentionally) that still offers plenty of detail and a convincing sense of depth. Colors tend to be muted, with pointed exceptions, and the light and gentle haze of L.A. come through in the frequent location footage. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mix can be considered definitive: dialogue is sharp, the music sprightly, and directional effects, though rare, nicely handled.
The feature comes with an informative and highly enjoyable commentary by director Marc Webb, writer Michael Weber, writer Scott Neustadter and actor Joseph Gordon Levitt. They come off as a friendly bunch clearly enamored with each other's work in the collaborative process, which they describe over the length of the film.
"Lost Days of Summer: Deleted and Extended Scenes" (14:42, HD) come with optional commentary.
"Not a Love Story: Making (500) Days of Summer" (29:21, HD) gives a nice overview of the making of the film, from its inception to the end of production, with an emphasis on getting the greenlight, design choices, casting, and character work. Interviewed are producer Mark Waters, Neustadter, Weber, Webb, producer Jessica Tuchinsky, costume designer Hope Hanafin, producer Mason Novick, Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, production designer Laura Fox, Geoffrey Arend, and director of photography Eric Steelberg.
"Summer at Sundance" (13:46, HD) is a video diary-style piece with Webb, Gordon-Levitt, Deschanel, and Weber (among others) caught on camera during the film's coming-out at Sundance.
Audition Tapes for "Geoffrey Arend (McKenzie)" (4:23, SD) and "Matthew Gray-Gubler (Paul)" (2:38, SD)" come with optional commentary.
Next up are two sets of Summer Storyboards (SD), each with two angles: Storyboards and Storyboard-to-film Comparison; the segments—"Summer Effect" and "Reality/Expectations"—also come with optional commentary.
"'Bank Dance' Directed by Mark Webb" (4:18, SD) is a music video—featuring Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel—for the She & Him song "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?".
"Mean's Cinemash: 'Sid and Nancy/(500) Days of Summer'" (3:28, HD) is another short directed by Webb. Also served up here: "Music Video 'Sweet Disposition' by The Temper Trap" (4:01, SD).
Six "Conversations with Zooey and Joseph" (12:26, SD) cover "Acting Vs. Reality," "The Creative Process," "Favorite Parts of Los Angeles," "Karaoke," "Los Angeles" and "Music."
Filmmaking Specials include "Behind (500) Days: Director Marc Webb on Casting Joe and Zooey" (2:07, SD), "Behind (500) Days: Director Marc Webb on the Summer Effect" (1:35, SD), "Behind (500) Days: Director Marc Webb on French Film References" (:58, SD), "Behind (500) Days: Director Marc Webb on the Color Palette" (1:11, SD), "FOX Movie Channel Presents In Character with Zooey Deschanel" (2:38, SD) and "FOX Movie Channel Presents In Character with Joseph Gordon-Levitt" (3:08, SD).
Lastly, Fox provides a Digital Copy on a second disc. Here's a chance to catch up with one of the best films of 2009—and one with plenty of replay value.
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